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2-Plants: Brazil farms become biotech battlegrounds

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TITLE:  Brazil farms become biotech battlegrounds
SOURCE: Reuters Online Service, by Phil Stewart
DATE:   June 1, 1999

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Brazil farms become biotech battlegrou

TRES DE MAYO, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazilian farmer Alberto Wunsch
spends much of his time these days muttering about border
controls and DNA testing. But it is not migrant workers or a
paternity suit that have the 44-year-old farmer wringing his
hands. It is the advent of genetically altered seeds that he
fears will dazzle farmers on his cooperative with promises of
higher profits and super-botanical productivity. Who would look
this biotech gift horse in the mouth? Wunsch would. He says
modern science's meddling in agriculture could cost him precious
customers in health-conscious Europe, where consumers are
boycotting so-called Frankenstein foods. "There is still a global
debate about whether these seeds are safe, and Europe doesn't
want them," Wunsch said sternly. "Basically, I can't afford to
take any chances."

Tracing his finger along a color-coded map of his cooperative in
the rolling hills of Rio Grande do Sul state, he lays out a
battle plan to keep the seeds off the land. Brazil, Latin
America's king of agriculture, has sat on the sidelines while the
debate over genetically modified (GM) food has bubbled over into
a global trade war. U.S. biotechnology firms, after spreading
their seed in North America, have been slapped with trade bans
and licensing delays in the Europe Union. Fierce consumer
protests there have forced European food processors and major
supermarket chains such as France's Carrefour to wipe GM foods
off their shelves and increasingly turn to an alternate supplier
-- Brazil. With more territory than the continental United
States, Brazil turns out more coffee, sugar and oranges than
anywhere else on the planet and is a leading grower of other
staples like soybeans, wheat and corn.

"What we have here is the hemisphere's last great unspoiled
agriculture producer," said Rio Grande do Sul's agriculture
secretary, Jose Hermetto Hoffmann, himself a vocal opponent of GM
foods. "But clearly time is running out," he added. Top
multinationals are lining up to leave genetically enhanced
footprints on Brazil's soil. And U.S. biotechnology giant
Monsanto Co. is poised to take the first step. In a landmark
decision last month, Brazil's government told Monsanto it could
kick off nationwide sales of a line of genetically altered
soybeans with the brand name Roundup Ready. Monsanto boasts that
within three years their seeds, altered to tolerate a potent
weed-killer, will compose half of Brazil's soybean crop, the
world's largest behind the United States.

But Monsanto's kick-off may turn into more of a fumble as
environmental groups led by Greenpeace launch a drive to hold the
soybeans hostage in Brazil's labyrinthine court system. They
argue that soybeans are the basic stuff of processed foods and
genetically altered varieties will quickly find their way into
ice cream, chocolate and some 60 percent of modern edibles,
posing a potential health risk to humans. Then there are the
feared hazards for the Earth. "Basically, there are no medium- or
long-term assessments about what happens once (the crops) are
released into nature," said Roberto Kishinami, Greenpeace
director for Brazil. "What we are calling for is caution."
Politicians in Brazil's wealthy growing states have also jumped
on the anti-transgenic bandwagon, with the left-wing government
of Rio Grande do Sul threatening to torch Monsanto's soybeans and
ban farmers from planting GM crops.

The question Brazil's farmers are asking is whether shunning the
advances of science is a wise business move, especially as global
commodities prices sink to their lowest in recent history. A
growing number of them believe transgenics may be a solution to
their economic woes, so much so that they have broken the law to
get their hands on some. Farmers in Rio Grande do Sul have been
buying seeds smuggled illegally over the border from Argentina,
where Monsanto's soybeans are not only legal but covered half
that nation's crop this year. Just a three-hour drive along
broken highways and dirt roads from Wunsch's cooperative lies
Monsanto's Rio Grande do Sul headquarters, where executives are
calculating a sales boom from all the pent-up Brazilian demand.
Luis Ozorio Dumonecel, head of Monsanto operations there, says
the explanation is simple: despite well-publicized fears, there
are still no proven health or environmental risks from gene
enhanced crops. And then there are the economic incentives:
Roundup Ready soybeans could save a farmer thousands of dollars
on herbicides annually.

"This is a product that farmers want, that is going to help them
save money," Dumonecel said. "It is a political issue right now,
but I think worries will disappear once people are educated about
the product." Meanwhile, Wunsch will proudly tell you about his
two trips this year to Europe, where he rubbed elbows with
supermarket moguls and food processors eager to secure
transgenic-free produce. But he will also admit he is rolling the
dice. Consumers may swallow their fear of "Frankenstein foods" if
ongoing scientific tests ultimately prove them harmless. Wunsch
also concedes nobody has offered him any cash to fund his crusade
against transgenics, which includes a hefty price tag for DNA
testing to show his crops are GM-free. He has also stockpiled six
huge silos of seeds and organized an elaborate distribution
network to make sure his farmers follow his costly battle plan.
"Right now we're just focusing on securing this niche market,"
Wunsch said. "We hope the money will follow. It better, because
times are really tough for our farmers here."

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
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-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
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